By Dan Sealy
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the positions of the NEC or its Member Organizations.
In 1982, Washington DC experienced blizzard conditions. A commercial liner carrying 74 passengers and five crew crashed on takeoff and plunged into the frozen Potomac River. US Park Police (USPP), using their helicopter, hovering so low its skids dipped into the icy water, plucked 5 of only 6 survivors from the river assisted by onshore citizens. The USPP pilot, Usher, and paramedic, Windsor, were awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. Though dramatically caught on live TV, this was not a rare event. I had the honor of working alongside the US Park Police as a park ranger/natural resource manager at Muir Woods and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California and in parks in Washington, DC metropolitan area. Brave men and women did the work rangers were generally happy to let them cover in urban areas: robbery, organized crime and murder. US Park Police also assisted park rangers with river and ocean rescues, searches for lost hikers and evacuating visitors with emergency medical issues. Thirteen members of the USPP have lost their lives in the line of duty; two of those were African Americans.
Unfortunately, I also knew a Park Police officer who was filmed kicking a young immigrant man in the head while handcuffed. Another time, after a long day of working huge crowds for the annual July 4th celebration in Washington, DC a young woman ran up to me in the darkness to report her friend had been punched in the chest by her boyfriend and could not breathe; her lung had collapsed. When I enlisted the help of a nearby Park Police officer, his response was “she probably deserved it” and he sped off on his motorcycle leaving me to find another officer to call for a medical evacuation. I have seen lots of the best of the USPP and, unfortunately, a little of the worst. The USPP are a valued part of the National Park Service in our urban areas. It is their duty to assist other agencies with the protection of the President as well as our national park resources. On June 1, video emerged of the USPP participating in attacks on an Australian journalist and photographer in Lafayette Park, near the White House in order for President Trump to conduct a dangerously unscripted and widely criticized photo op in front of a nearby church. I was shocked and saddened. USPP placed both officers on administrative leave while an investigation is being conducted.
On June 3 Chief of US Park Police, Monahan stated:
“The United States Park Police is committed to the peaceful expression of First Amendment rights. However, this past weekend’s demonstrations at Lafayette Park and across the National Mall included activities that were not part of a peaceful protest, which resulted in injuries to USPP officers in the line of duty, the destruction of public property and the defacing of memorials and monuments. During four days of demonstrations, 51 members of the USPP were injured; of those, 11 were transported to the hospital and released and three were admitted.”
On June 4, The Northcoast Environmental Center joined over 75 other conservation organizations around the nation sending a letter to Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt, condemning this excessive force on a peaceful protest of citizens exercising their First Amendment Rights.
“Dear Secretary Bernhardt,
We write with deep concern about the recent actions of the United States Park Police during ongoing protests in Washington, DC. Like protests around the country, those in our nation’s capital are calls for justice for the Black community. We grieve and condemn the recent horrific acts of violence and intimidation against Black people in our country, and the June 1 expulsion of peaceful protesters from in and near Lafayette Park, a national park unit, which was both unprovoked and unnecessarily aggressive… On behalf of our millions of members and supporters across the country, we ask that you provide explanations for the Park Police’s use of force to clear a public space where people were exercising their constitutional rights.”
Surely, we can do better. From my experience such actions, whether by law enforcement officers, firefighters, or other trained frontline safety personnel, can get out of hand typically due to one of two circumstances:
- A “rogue” person who has a personal agenda or bias and ignores the mission at hand instead acting on that personal prejudice or moral belief, most clearly due to racism, xenophobia, or religious beliefs. The solution to that is better vetting of candidates through mental and psychological testing, background checks, and, if chosen, routine observation and analysis for specific racial and non-relevant prejudicial actions. USPP has increased these, but more is needed. Once hired and represented by a union, it is routine and expected that the union defends the actions of its members. Clearly there are limits and unions must make sure members uphold the high standards of the law enforcement unit.
- The hypertension when a unit prepares for engagements to protect something of value and honor can result in rising tension, and esprit-de corps can lead to actions even the best officer regrets in hindsight. They plead they “got caught up in the moment.” This human response to excitement and danger is recognized in training programs, but it is time for psychologists and specialists to look at how that training can be improved, while giving members of a unit both the freedom and the responsibility to speak up when there is an early sign of injustice.
The letter sums up the concern: “The Black community and people of color deserve better. Our national parks deserve better. The public deserves better. And our democracy deserves better.”